Miscellaneous items on science and atheism from the Guardian

September 3, 2011 • 12:33 pm

Matthew Cobb has kindly scanned a page from today’s paper issue of the Guardian Review—stuff that doesn’t appear online.  There are three items of interest below (click to enlarge page):

1.  An unfunny cartoon on the relationship between science and faith

2.  A letter from Dr. David Hay of Aberdeen on James Wood’s Guardian Piece about the clash between atheism and religious fundamentalism (I think the piece Hay is referring to is not “God, Interrupted,” which appeared in the New Yorker in 2001, but an August 27 piece called “The New Atheism“; more on that piece tomorrow). Hay defends the “more nuanced” (read: “accommodationist”) view of the debate, and asserts that “recent empirical investigations  in genetics and neurophysiology” support the idea that religious and spiritual awareness evolved as a product of natural selection acting on our ancestors.  I’m not aware of that research, and doubt that it says what Hay claims.

3. Most interesting to me, in view of the debate about the importance of epigenetics in evolution, is a letter from my friends and colleagues Deborah and Brian Charlesworth (professors at Edinburgh) about Peter Forbes’ defense of epigenetics in the Guardian, a piece that I wrote about in detail two weeks ago.  The Charlesworths, I’m pleased to see, agree that the epigenetics “revolution” is highly overblown, arguing that epigenetic marks on genes are themselves genetically controlled, that there’s little evidence that inherited epigenetic marks have been of much importance in evolution, and that the whole idea hardly overturns our notions of the importance of “conventional” genetics.

14 thoughts on “Miscellaneous items on science and atheism from the Guardian

  1. OT: this week’s most noteworthy Guardian news story is their spectactularly unprofessional publication of the encryption key for the unredacted Wikileaks diplomatic cables, allowing the decrypted cables with full names and identities to be posted on a torrent. “Memo to the Guardian: Publishing encryption keys is almost always a bad idea.”

    1. Thank you! I wondered about the missing pieces between yesterday’s paper having Wikileaks accusing Guardian of revealing a key in one article and Guardian and a slew other newspapers going to court on Wikileaks for exposing sources and whistle-blowers.

      Now I know the “six acts” (rather more now) between the cooperation and the newspapers bungling it.

      Maybe websites (aka blogs) are the better media.

    2. Seems to me the Guardian (or someone inside it) was bought or coerced/strongarmed into making the whoopsie. Now there’s evidence of harm against Assange/Bradley and others. Concocted sex scandal didn’t work. Imprisonment/torture didn’t work well enough. Bring in the spooks.

  2. After reading James Wood’s Guardian article, I have every confidence that someone (Dr. Coyne?) will expose it for the odiferous, stomach-churning accommodationist bafflegab that it is.

  3. “Religious and spiritual awareness evolved as a product of natural selection acting on our ancestors”

    That doesn’t mean that religion is to be encouraged. Letting one rip when one’s guts are full of gas also evolved a.a.p.o.n.s.a.o.o.a., but in civilized society one restrains the urge in the presence of others. Otherwise one becomes the subject of a book along the lines of “Walter the Farting Dog.”

    Yes, I just put religion on the same level as farting. About time, no?

    We have all sorts of naturally evolved drives and urges, but civilization encourages us to be selective about which ones we obey and which ones we repress.

    My advice to religionists: when you feel the urge to pray, click beads, perform puja, meditate, go on the hajj, chant mantras, snap mackerels, tithe, or bugger an altar boy (the latter in the special case of RC priests), just lie back and think of Darwin.

    1. I can’t approve of putting religion on the same level as farting at all. Farting is a necessary and beneficial biological function which it is not wise to suppress for too long, religion is a disease of the mind. Please do not disrespect farting so egregiously!

  4. OT, but that is a truly boring comic.

    Sometimes they are set up so you have to follow a series to get the insider joke. But often that turns out as comfortable as scratching an itch. (Reading the next comic makes you feel closer to the “key”, but 2-3 days hence it just hurts…)

  5. U of Edinburgh to the rescue. A bastion of sanity, in my humble experience.

    cartoon: bilious tripe

    D Hay’s contribution: hogshite. (I count “hard-line atheists”, “nuanced”, and appeals to the “some scientists believe in bafflegab” argument). Tiresome, predictable crap.

    Your friends at U of E: golden. Obviously the best ink on the page.

    1. “bilious”:

      “1. Of, relating to, or containing bile; biliary.
      a. Characterized by an excess secretion of bile.
      b. Relating to, characterized by, or experiencing gastric distress caused by a disorder of the liver or gallbladder.
      c. Appearing as if affected by such a disorder; sickly.
      3. Resembling bile, especially in color: a bilious green.
      4. Having a peevish disposition; ill-humored.”

      Another day in accommodationist land, another useful english word.

      We are not gonna run out of terms describing accommodationism anytime soon, are we?

  6. As I write from the very building where Tracy Sonneborn has done his landmark Paramecium cortical inheritance work (Sonneborn & Beisson 1965 PNAS), I must once again emphasise that there DOES exist an epigenetics beyond mere markings of chromatin, a true epigenetics of the cell itself, inheritance of patterns outside the genome. It’s undeniable, and arguments like this (on both sides) merely obscure and further hinder research in this field. Which I want to ultimately pursue, so, erm… stop hurting my chances of getting funding, you %*#&s! 😉

    Unfortunately the usage of ‘epigenetics’ has been corrupted beyond help, so I have to use the awkward phrase ‘extragenomic inheritance’ instead. It really, really bugs me.

    Your friendly neighbourhood evolutionary cell biologist,

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